Betsayda Machado & Parranda El Clavo Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under The Mango Tree
Review by Michael Stone
"Oh, Santa Rosa"
Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado fronts Parranda El Clavo, founded 30 years ago in the cacao-growing region where the settlement of El Clavo is located, some 40 miles southeast of the capital, Caracas. Inspired by her father, a parranda trumpeter, Betsayda Machado began singing at an early age; her manifest talent eventually took her to Caracas, where she has been primarily based in recent years.
The windward Barlovento region of Miranda state, not far from the eastern Caribbean coast, is renowned for its African-Venezuelan parranda ensembles, Parranda El Clavo among them. The power of the genre owes at least as much to the energy of the singing as to the drive of the percussion. Indeed, on the majority of the songs, the chorus sings the opening phrase or verse a cappella to set the tune, with the percussion joining subsequently.
Instrumentally, the largest drum is the mina or tambor grande: a heavy log drum some two meters in length, typically fashioned of avocado timber (e.g., after the a cappella introduction to “No la peles, papa”). Supported on a wooden frame, skinned at one end, it is played by a hand drummer while others mark out polyrhythms on the side with sticks called palos or laures (audible at the start of “La situación”). In name and drum-building technique, the mina recalls the Gold Coast of West Africa, specifically Elmina, Ghana, site of the infamous Portuguese slave-trading castle dating to the late 15th century.
"No la peles, papa"
Rounding out the Barlovento array are maracas and the redondo and tambora drums, with skins on both ends, played with a single palo on both the skin and the side of the drum. Played alone or in ensembles, held between the knees of the sitting drummer, tamboras ordinarily serve to accompany nighttime ceremonies honoring the Catholic saints (e.g., “Oh, Santa Rosa,” a call-out to the patron saint of the enslaved). The lightweight redondo, played singly or in ensembles, is customarily carved in sets from the trunk of a single balsa tree; the standing drummer holds the narrow redondo between the knees, playing with one open hand and a palo. (See video below at 11 minutes)
Parranda El Clavo also employs the quitiplás, a pair of stamped bamboo tubes struck on the ground or on a hard object, and against one another, to produce a continuous beat cycle; children practice with quitiplás to learn traditional rhythms). Despite patent similarities in drum construction, choral singing, dance styles and percussion instrumentation, however, African-Venezuelans have not retained as strong a sense of specific ethnic West or Central African identities such as in the linked music and spiritual traditions of, say, the cabildos of Cuba or Candomblé casas of Brazil. (See video below at 9 minutes)
Parranda de aguinaldo is the African-Venezuelan genre associated with year's end holidays, a house-to-house revel aligned with like-named performance traditions in nearby Trinidad (parang), in Puerto Rico, and among the Garifuna people of Caribbean Central America. Musicians and singers go from house to house during the Christmas season, caroling residents in expectation of a shot of rum or the seasonal Venezuelan fare called hallaca, maize dough mixed with meat or seafood, wrapped in a banana leaf. Accompanying the aguinaldo singers, a key sonic element is the furro or furruco—a single-headed friction drum whose resonant “bull-roarer” sound is produced by altering the drum-skin tension with an attached stick. Unfortunately, given the large ensemble and field recording conditions, the furro and quitiplás do not come through on the CD, although videos of the ensemble demonstrate how integral these are to the full ensemble sound. The classic setting also includes the cuatro, maracas, the charrasca scraper and the occasional trumpet.
While traditionally rooted, Parranda El Clavo pushes genre boundaries by introducing political themes, as on “Sentimiento,” whose pointed chorus, a patent critique of class and racial hierarchy, laments, “Me dan ganas de llorar / Como matan a la gente / En nuestro país / Y en mi pueblo inocente” (It makes me want to weep / The way they kill [our] people / In our country / And in my innocent village).
The CD booklet, while replete with evocative black-and-white photos of the performers, offers no liner notes. The omission denies listeners the essential context to grasp the everyday human struggles that infuse the music and sustain the community, which in turn obscures the cultural and historical rootedness of one more marginalized domain of the transatlantic African diaspora. Yet the producers have brought to light a significant new voice that broadens our appreciation of the diversity and sustained vitality of New World African roots music, and the results are compelling.
Of course, there are practical limits to what a field recording (made on site in El Clavo, with 18 singers and a dozen percussionists) can capture of the music's many nuances. The next step will be to get this enormously talented ensemble into a proper studio with a producer alert to the group's full sonic capabilities, including the furro and quitiplás, two essential components of the overall sound.
But this recording's technical and contextual limitations take nothing away from the group's rendering of Venezuelan parranda and its uniquely local communal expression of the transcendent vagaries of the human condition. A powerful call-and-response choral group backed by a potent percussion array, versed in the tradition's dense polyrhythms and allied dance genres, the ensemble evinces palpable cultural and historical kinship with expressive forms encountered from Brazil to Cuba, Latin New York, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Caribbean Panama and Central America (e.g., Andy Palacio and Aurelio Martínez), and lowland coastal Ecuador and Colombia (e.g., Totó La Momposina).
Until now, Betsayda and Parranda El Clavo have performed mostly at local festivals, celebrations, wakes and the like. Juan Souki (of the design studio Imaginarios, with offices in Caracas and Toronto) and José Luis Pardo (a.k.a. DJ Afro, founding member of Venezuelan groups Los Amigos Invisibles and Los Crema Paraíso) produced these captivating field recordings that, in taking the music abroad for the first time, convey the incontestable energy and human sentiment of this remarkable collective.—Michael Stone
Video, live at The Kennedy Center
Note: Betsayda's fall 2017 U.S. tour includes appearances at Globalquerque; Clifton Roots, Jazz and Heritage Festival, Louisville, KY; Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, Bloomington, IN; Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA; Bossa Bistró, Washington, DC; Lafayette College; The Passport Series, Schenectady, NY; and Flushing Town Hall.Find out more on their web site
All audio @copy; Betsayda Machado
Photos: Nick Jacobs (top) and Cliff Furnald